Thursday, July 13, 2006
The Willy-Wonka-like labyrinth of marine intrigue at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute houses a wealth of gadgets and critters. Many among them are amazing, but the whale bone-eating worms have to rank near the top.
These little fire-red wrigglers don’t have a stomach or a mouth. At, oh, 10,000 feet under the sea, where an MBARI remote operated vehicle (ROV) discovered them, down where a whale’s carcass eventually settles on the sea floor, they act as a burrowing vehicle for voracious bacteria that live inside of them. The worms draw their nutrition from the oils their tiny symbiotic buddies help them absorb.
The worm world’s extreme adventurers—Osedax, as they’re known to scientists—will be ready for public introductions at MBARI’s annual open house this Saturday. At displays sprawling across the parking lot of the institute’s sparkling facility, the 3,000-some expected guests can also check out world-class robotic ROVs and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), peep deep-sea videos from Monterey Bay, engage the kids in children’s activities, and hear MBARI experts express contagious excitement about their work.
To understand how so much cool science ended up on the shores of little Moss Landing, a basic familiarity with MBARI’s mission is helpful.
Contrary to popular belief, MBARI is a stand-alone institution with a mission clearly delineated from that of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
“David Packard spoke to his [oceanographic] brain trust and asked them what they needed to know,” says MBARI spokesperson and marine biologist Lisa Borok. “They said, ‘We need to understand the coastal area and the deep sea, to develop the science and the tools. No one’s doing it.’
“The mission isn’t the Aquarium’s, which is conservation. It’s basic science.” Borok adds that the science falls into two categories: developing technologies for oceanographic research and conducting the research itself.
With the funding of the Packard Foundation, which continues to provide 80 percent of its support, MBARI was able to concentrate on filling the oceanic vacuum of information rather than fundraising. (MBARI leverages the other 20 percent through grants.)
“We could get the big fancy toys,” says Borok, “and take risks and look at longer term projects.”
Those toys include the ROVs Ventana and Tiburon, futuristic VW Beetle-sized vehicles with big high-resolution camera eyeballs and amazingly dexterous claws. Their ultramodern qualities, along with their other elements designed to disarm the mystery and hostility of the environments they explore, lead to inevitable—and accurate—comparisons to spacecraft. (MBARI’s newest rover, called the Benthic Rover, is closest to the craft used on Mars.) One of the most significant differences between the type of craft, however, is the frequency with which they’re used—MBARI scientists enlist their vehicles for various explorative projects almost every day; space rovers get dusted off once every few years.
Unsurprisingly, then, MBARI’s ROVs are responsible for many of the curious samples and hypnotic videos that MBARI plans to share Saturday.
Visitors can also check out some of the other exciting new studies being undertaken by MBARI’s 17-foot-long, multi-million-dollar AUVs, tour the impressive machine shop where they are repaired, and look over advanced buoys MBARI places in the open ocean to provide cutting edge, real-time feedback, a dramatic advance from occasionally dipping into the big drink for samples.
Recent scientific rewards resulting from these toys have made big news in the scientific community and reaffirmed MBARI’s place at the forefront of oceanographic science. It’s a place Borok describes in her own way, saying, “We’re the only ones doing what we’re doing.”
The discovery of the yellow, hairy-armed “Yeti crab” at a depth of 7,200 feet, which was celebrated internationally, was made by a team led by MBARI’s Bob Vrijenhoek in March. The breakthrough reconnaissance of the Davidson Seamount off the California Coast, conducted by a team of scientists from MBARI, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, took place on board MBARI’s Western Flyer in January. Discoveries with particular bearing upon the ocean’s changing chemical make-up due to global warming continue constantly.
This science is exciting, says Borok, which is the idea behind the open house: these advances and understandings are a far cry from the dry stuff that sends most folks scampering away.
“What if kids had to learn all the rules of baseball and never really pick up a ball?” she asks. “The first time people pick up a ball in science is grad school.”
MBARI and this event, she says, help bring science back to its rightful place—a world not inhabited exclusively by theories and laws, but by underwater rovers and whale-bone-eating worms.
“We’ve all made science boring,” she says. “We’re gonna
open it back up.”
MBARI’s Open House takes place noon-5pm this Saturday at MBARI, 7700 Sandholdt Rd. (across the bridge) in Moss Landing. Admission is free. For more, call 775-1700 or visit mbari.org.